Feeling Jewish: (A Book for Just About Anyone) by Devorah Baum is an intriguing study of what constitutes “feeling Jewish” through an analysis of the treatment of Jews in literature and popular culture. Baum draws upon critical theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and social science to support her conclusions. Each of her chapters focus on those “feelings” that she writes are “famously associated with Jews.” The chapter titles are “Self-hatred,” “Envy,” “Guilt,” “Over the Top,” “Paranoia,” “Mother Love,” and “Affected.” The somberness of these topics is misleading; Baum’s work is interspersed with Jewish jokes, which are used as poignant yet delightful illustrations of her deductions.
In her introduction, Baum clarifies her goals for the book: “It’s not my project here to advance a particular political agenda. I want to talk instead about how the feelings that seem so often to divide us may also be a means of uniting us.” In today’s rapidly changing global society, large segments of society feel existentially threatened and marginalized. These are the hallmark feelings often associated with being Jewish. In actuality, Baum suggests, these emotions are often shared with other groups, especially those stigmatized based on their “race, migration, class, or sexuality.” The commonality of these feelings may serve to bring different groups in society closer together.
The chapter entitled “Self-Hate” is particularly interesting. Characterizing a writer or person as a “self-hating Jew” is an especially odious designation. These days, Baum suggests, the term is more often used by Jews against Jews who are seen as “publicly critical of Israel or Zionism.” In other contexts, it was a term applied to popular Jewish writers such as Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Woody Allen. Baum writes, “dogged by the accusation of Jewish self-hatred from the beginning of his career, Roth made this charge a recurrent theme in his work.” This can be seen in Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Roth’s Jewish characters have overbearing mothers and experience ever-present anxiety, guilt, and a sense of marginalization. But, argues Baum, these seemingly negative Jewish feelings can actually be seen as “blessings” because it is these emotions that have contributed to the wonderful Jewish sense of humor, perceptiveness, and passion for others and ideas.
Feeling Jewish: (A Book for Just About Anyone) is recommended for all readers who would like to examine “feeling Jewish” from a variety of new perspectives.